SAN FRANCISCO, SEPT. 3 -- Political scientists meeting here over Labor Day weekend continued a spirited debate but reached no consensus on the causes and consequences of a relatively recent phenomenon of American politics -- seemingly permanent "divided government" in which Republicans control the White House and executive branch agencies and Democrats rule Congress.
At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, John Chubb of the Brookings Institution argued that divided government results in a paralysis of effective administration of government programs. Effective administration, he contended, requires a high degree of autonomy, but "Democratic Congresses have been unwilling to provide administrative autonomy" to agencies under the control of a Republican presidency.
Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter of Cornell University, in turn, contended that the near institutionalization of divided government has resulted in the abuse of the political system, with Republican presidents using such extralegal means as the private financing of the Nicaraguan contras, and Democratic Congresses legislating minute policy details for an executive branch that the voters are unwilling to entrust to Democratic control.
David Mayhew of Yale University pointed out that "antagonistic regimes" pitting Congress against the presidency have often been characteristic of U.S. government. He cited what he called the "rules committee regime" begun in the late 1930s in which conservative southerner Democrats and Republicans used control of the House Rules Committee to stall or kill President Franklin D. Roosevelt's liberal policy initiatives.
Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California-San Diego argued that split government accurately and democratically reflects the will of the American electorate. "Democratic majorities persist because voters prefer Democrats to represent them in the House," he said. "Republicans have failed to reduce or replace the Democratic majority because they have fielded inferior candidates on the wrong side of issues that are important to voters."
Jacobson in effect challenged the basic thesis of House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.) that the Democratic House majority persists because of gerrymandered districts, incumbent control of the campaign financing system and the perks of office for incumbents. "The left wing in the House is engaged in a conspiracy to avoid fair elections," Gingrich has charged.
Jacobson countered that voters have very different priorities when casting ballots for the president and for members of the House. When casting presidential ballots, voters are concerned with foreign policy and deficit issues, both of which result in a strong tilt in favor of Republican presidential candidates, he said. When casting ballots for House members, voter concern shifts to such pro-Democratic issues as the environment and domestic policy initiatives. "Divided control reflects, rather than thwarts, the popular will," Jacobson wrote.
In addition, Jacobson argued, Republicans have severe and inherent problems fielding qualified congressional candidates because "any Republican seriously embracing the minimalist conception of government underlying the 'Reagan revolution' is unlikely to view a career in Congress as attractive or satisfying."
The political scientists also heard arguments that the rise of international economic competition has transferred power over economic policy from elected officials to financial technocrats in banks and other public and private sector institutions, undercutting attempts to enact progressive social legislation.
"The increasing mobility of capital across the globe changes the rules in favor of capital," said Sven Steinmo of the University of Colorado at Boulder. "By the 1980s, the argument for social justice was increasingly overwhelmed by the argument for economic growth. Growth, moreover, was increasingly an issue of international competitiveness."